by editor | 17th September 2010 6:57 am
Nicolas Sarkozy rounds on critics and vows to keep dismantling Roma camps
French president denies his government is unfairly targeting Gypsies after spat with Jose Manuel Barroso at EU summit
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has rounded fiercely on European critics of his anti-Gypsy campaign and pledged to carry on with a programme of deportations and demolition of Roma camps.
He branded criticism of him by the European commission as “outrageous” and “deeply hurtful”.
The war of words between Brussels and Paris over the legality of the French government’s actions hijacked an EU summit and resulted in Sarkozy and José Manuel Barroso, the commission president, engaging in robust verbal sparring over lunch today, according to witnesses.
“There was an intense exchange of sharp words,” said Boyko Borisov, the prime minister of Bulgaria, which has been receiving some of the deportees from France.
“The exchange was violent on the part of Sarkozy,” said a senior EU official.
“There was a lively debate,” observed David Cameron afterwards.
Another EU official said: “Sarkozy was caught with his pants down. So he tried to create a distraction. It was a very strong exchange.”
The dispute erupted earlier this week, following the leak of a French government document indicating that European Roma immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria were being targeted collectively “as a priority” for eviction from France, a breach of EU laws.
The European commissioner for justice and fundamental rights, Viviane Reding, accused the French government of duplicity and threatened to take France to court. She also called the country’s conduct a disgrace, and, most controversially, raised the spectre of Vichy France and the wartime persecution of Jews as a parallel with the treatment of Gypsies.
Sarkozy came to today’s summit in Brussels isolated, except for the support of Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, but promptly went on the offensive.
Tonight, he denied France had broken any laws, dismissed talk of discrimination against Balkan Roma, claimed the support of the rest of Europe and argued that Barroso had abandoned Reding to side with the French.
Berlusconi said that Reding and other European commissioners should be muzzled, with Barroso alone allowed to speak for Brussels. “I am the president of France and I cannot allow my country to be insulted,” Sarkozy declared.
“Europe is unanimous in condemning those outrageous statements [by Reding] … It was deeply, deeply hurtful. I had to re-establish the facts.” While many witnesses spoke of the passionate argument over lunch, Sarkozy maintained that he was “the only person who remained calm and did not use excessive language”. That version of events was contested by several witnesses.
Reding has faced widespread criticism in Brussels and EU capitals for her invocation of the second world war in relation to the Roma dispute. But on the substance of the row – whether France has broken the law and the commission’s role in deciding that – she has won widespread support.
Barroso, according to witnesses, told Sarkozy that the French had “a case to answer” and that it was the commission’s job to investigate that. He accused Sarkozy of raising a fuss to try to divert attention from the real issue – whether the French authorities were guilty of racist discrimination and breaking European rules on freedom of movement for EU citizens.
“Many people questioned Reding’s choice of words, but not a single person except Sarkozy questioned the substance,” said a Barroso spokesman.
“There was a huge row over lunch with President Barroso insisting that he had a job to do of upholding EU laws on the free movement of its citizens and he would continue to do it.
“We will continue to consider whether to take legal action against France. That work is going on.”
The summit was called to examine the EU’s failures in developing effective common foreign policies and to discuss economic reform.
According to EU ambassadors and several officials, the organisation of the summit was “shambolic” and “chaotic”, with Herman Van Rompuy, the European council president, and Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, being blamed for the poor preparation. But the Roma issue overshadowed everything else.
Just when leaders, diplomats and officials were calling for a cooling of tempers and a calmer debate, Sarkozy’s broadsides reignited the row. He categorically denied that France was breaking any laws or singling out the Roma for harassment.
In the past six weeks, French police have deported more than 1,000 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria and dismantled more than 100 camps. The interior ministry document told police to focus on the Roma “as a priority”.
“Of course we are not aiming at a given ethnic population,” said Sarkozy. More than 500 “illegal settlements” had been demolished in France in August, he said, with 80% of the people affected being French.
“There has been no form of discrimination whatsoever … This policy will be continued.”
Sarkozy added that all EU heads of state and government were shocked by Reding’s remarks and that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, had phoned him yesterday “to express her total solidarity”.
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